Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A Wise Alternative

While environmentalists like to spin the fantasy that "alternative energy" could replace our current conventional sources in the not so distant future, the reality is that alternative energy could have a more important impact in the larger energy picture by helping make those current carbon-based sources more efficient. Case in point is an article in Monday's WSJ on how Valero Harnesses Wind Energy to Fuel Its Oil-Refining Process:

In this windswept corner of the high plains, a big oil refiner is embracing new green technology in order to make more money producing old-fashioned fossil fuels.

Valero Energy Corp., which has the capacity to process more crude than any other U.S. refiner, recently installed 33 windmills to supply a refinery here with green electricity to produce gasoline and diesel.

The marriage is one of convenience, Valero executives say. "We didn't build the wind farm so we could get into the wind-energy business," notes Tom Shetina, the refinery's manager, who expresses awe at the windmills' size. "We built the wind farm so we could support the refinery and run it more economically."

The company hopes to lock in fluctuating electricity prices by developing its own source of power, rather than relying on the grid, and to cut the $1.4-million-a-month electricity bill at the seven-decade-old refinery. The $115 million wind farm, which will be ready to operate at full capacity in August, will pay for itself in about 10 years at current electricity prices, company officials said.

Using wind power to help an oil refinery run more efficiently? That's the smart way to go "green."

Monday, June 29, 2009

Don't Get Me Wrong

Long week of not working begins today. My employer has decided to shut the facilities down this week to save money and mandate that people use up their vacation time. Any and all complaints about the situation are directed to the department of "You're Lucky To Have A Job." The way things are now with the economy if companies asked workers to come to work in frilly dresses with silly hats riding unicycles, the only response from employees would be "How frilly?"

Oh well. If you have to take an unplanned vacation the week of the Fourth of July is probably the best time to do it. On tap for today is a trip to the Minnesota Zoo with the kids. Haven't been there for many a moon, but can still recall referring to it as the "New Zoo" for years after it opened. I do look forward to hitting the petting zoo with the children before a big meaty lunch.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Cliff's Bar

My wife's uncle Cliff died last Saturday at the age of eighty-nine. Today is his funeral. He served in the Army Air Corps in World War II. After the war, he came home to Hutchinson, Minnesota, took a job that he would work at until retirement, got married, and never ventured far from the area again.

He and his wife moved into a house that they lived in until last year. Visiting it was like entering a time machine set to 1962 or thereabouts. Very few things in the always clean house were acquired after that, although since everything was in such good shape you could almost understand the couple's reluctance to change. The coffee pot may be forty years old, but if it still works why get a new one?

Not surprisingly my favorite room in their house was their basement "recreation" area. The prominent feature in this room was Cliff's basement bar. I've long held a theory the basement bar boom was the product of WWII. Vets returning from overseas had the desire and opportunity to settle down in the wave of new homes built after the war. And after having served far flung tours of duty, they also wanted to have the comforts of life close at hand. Thus the birth of the basement bar. I think the whole sociology of the basement bar would make for an interesting study, one that I'd like to pursue some day.

In order to have a basement bar, you obviously need a basement. Which means there are certain geographic restrictions to where they appeared. However, it's amazing how prevalent they were in homes here in the Upper Midwest built during particular time periods (40s-60s). When we were in the market for a home in late 2007 and 2008, we looked at many that had basement bars. The house that we live in now has one, although its not really the classic version. Cliff's was.

It's hard to appreciate the pure glory of his bar and the entire room for that matter without actually experiencing it in person, but since that's no longer possible, pictures (taken a few years ago) will have to suffice.

The first thing that you notice is the knotty-pine panelling, pretty much a standard in these parts for the basement rec room.

Over the years, you can build up quite a collection behind the bar.

Glasses, knick-knacks, and bottles.


Interestingly enough, I have this same Florida souvenir bottle in my bar.

No bar is complete without a beer light (or several of them).

What really sets it apart though is the little things.

Anything that plays on words is popular.

Another classic: the drunk hanging on the street lamp.

It was always happy hour at Cliff's.

Flavor of the South Seas. Why? Because.

A family of Old Crows and another beer light.

Of course, not everything works.

Gee, thanks for the hand-crafted poodle.

Another must have in any classic Midwest bar--whether on Main Street or in a basement--is a collection of wall signs. Use of off color language and adult humor is strongly encouraged.

As are cracks about sex.

("Sex" It's the most fun you can have without laughing)

(I don't ask for much out of life
Just a little beer money
Just a little food money
and every now and then

As I said, it wasn't just the bar either. Check out this corner of the room.

Teal colored walls. Checkerboard floor tiles. Vintage chair and ottoman. Cool light. And the girly calender.

Yup, that is indeed a Grain Belt calender from 1977.

In this corner, we find another chair and more to appreciate on the walls.

Another must-have for a Minnesota basement bar, a Hamm's sign.

What's that underneath the speaker?

Yes James, that is the work of one Art Frahm.

PBR me.

These wicker bar stools now seat people in our basement bar. One sure way that the memory of Cliff's bar will live on.

Here's a toast to you Cliff. R.I.P.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Spreading The Thirst Around

What happens when you take one part populism with one part Puritanism and add a measure of politics? U Bans Alcohol In All Sports Arenas:

When fans welcome the Gophers to TCF Bank Stadium this fall, they will do it without access to alcohol. The University's Board of Regents overwhelmingly voted 10-2 Wednesday not to serve alcohol in the new stadium.

Some members of the board had hoped alcohol could be served in premium-select seats, such as upper level suites. However, state lawmakers told the University it had to serve alcohol in the entire stadium or not at all.

The select seats where they would have served alcohol would have gone to less than 5 percent of the fans, but those seats would have created about half the revenue on game day. When the state took that option off the table, University officials decided to go dry.

The revenue that the University will forego by not being able to sell alcohol in the select seats? Never mind. We're more concerned with enforcing a twelve-year-old's notion of fairness and equity: if I can't have it than no one can. Rah for the U of M.

Hearts and Minds

Although I didn't get a chance to watch Mark Sanford's entire pathetic press conference yesterday, I was struck by the fact that during those parts of it I did see Sanford spent a lot of time talking about his heart:

And that is, I suspect, a continual process all through life of getting one's heart right in life. And so I would never stand before you as one who just says, Yo, I'm completely right with regard to my heart on all things. But what I would say is I'm committed to trying to get my heart right because the one thing that Cubby and all the others have told me is that the odyssey that we're all on in life is with regard to heart--not what I want or what you want, but in other words, indeed, this larger notion of truly trying to put other people first.

And I suspect if I'd really put this other person first, I wouldn't have jeopardized her life as I have. I certainly wouldn't have done it to my wife. I wouldn't have done it to my boys. I wouldn't have done it to the Tom Davises of the world. This was selfishness on my part. And for that, I'm most apologetic.

What the hell? This is sort of silly romantic drivel that one might to hear from a self-help author on "Oprah" or one of the self-absorbed man-boys on MTV's "The Real World." But not from a forty-nine year old governor of a state who previously had aspirations to become the leader of the free world.

Instead of worrying about "getting one's heart right" Sanford should be focused on getting his head right. It's really sad that a man in his position would fall into the trap of believing the crap about "your heart's always right" and "go with your heart" as if we're helpless to resist emotional impulses. Yes, you have a heart, but you also have a head and it's never a good thing to completely allow one or the other to guide your life.

The other thing that bothered me about Sanford's commitment to "get my heart right" is that this isn't all about his heart. Sanford is a Christian (Episcopal) and I know that he talked about his faith during the press conference. However, I'm surprised that a bigger part of his contrition wasn't focused on the sins he committed against God. It's great that you're going to work on getting your heart right Gov, but how about getting right with God? When you blindly follow your heart (or other parts of the anatomy) you easily can stray from God's path.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Party Killers

You know, the last time we had the Iranians over to the US Embassy for a gathering, they liked it so much, they refused to leave. It's like we were hostages or something!

Literally, actually. You may remember, late 1970's, binding and gagging, beatings, public humiliations, mock executions, etc.

I ain't exactly Emily Post, but I don't believe that proper decorum dictates that earns you an automatic invitation back for another party.

On the other hand, Barack Obama, an elegant man (as Sean Penn calls him), believes it's time to let bygones be bygones. Forgive and forget already! He invited Iranian officials worldwide to come to US Embassies for a party. Not just any party mind you, but a party to celebrate America on the anniversary of its founding, July 4th.

Putting aside the astounding historical ignorance (or apathy) revealed by his extending any invitation to that same hostage taking Iranian regime to come to a US Embassy, what's truly striking is Obama's naïveté in thinking the Iranians would accept an invitation to a party to celebrate America.

This Wall Street Journal article, previously excerpted on Fraters Libertas, bears repeating. Read it and wonder just what might have happened during the Embassy party singing of "America the Beautiful" had the Iranians accepted:

Chanting "Death to America! Death to Israel!" has been the way Iranians applaud for over a quarter-century. When the soccer team from Isfahan scores a goal against the soccer team from Shiraz, its fans cheer wildly: "Death to America! Death to Israel!"

At the end of an exquisitely performed sitar solo, the genteel audience in a concert hall in Tabriz shows its appreciation by loudly heaping imprecations upon "International Arrogance" (the USA) and "its Bastard Offspring" (the Jewish state).

Even during the hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, Iranian participants have replaced their traditionally pious ejaculations of "I am at your service, O Lord, there is none like unto you!" with responsive Persian cursing sessions aimed at the Hebrew- and English-speaking enemies of everything that is holy.

Like the daily "Two Minutes Hate" in George Orwell's "1984," this venom-spewing is the mantra upon which an entire generation of Iranians has been raised.

Another awkward moment no doubt would have ensued when the American flag was raised, as the Iranians only previous experience with Old Glory is best summarized in this picture.

It seems the leadership of Iran isn't as ready to forgive and forget as Barack Obama. Let's hope he figures out that rather stark and obvious fact soon.

Or, alternatively, we can hope that Iran gets some similarly elegant men in charge during the next 4 - 8 years, so we can put that Great Satan talk behind us, and get down to some serious Fourth of July partying with the mullahs.

For more on potential problems with inviting Iranians to Fourth of July parties, check out this post at the Nihilist in Golf Pants.

How Much Is That Ounce Really Worth?

David Harsanyi has a piece on the myth of preventive medicine as a cure-all for our health care woes:

Surely, for some, preventive health care is worthwhile. And no one is stopping you from eating an apple. But unless policy changes have the power to stop the Grim Reaper--rather than only postponing his arrival--it will make health care more expensive.

Let's begin with the morbidly obvious. The longer people hang around the longer they utilize the health care system. End-of-life care is often the most expensive. Old folks just love doctors. (I know I plan to unleash septuagenarian fury on MDs regularly.) As studies on Medicare have proven, easy availability to services at the tail end of life translates into lots of needless services.

Second, a government policy that prods people into incessantly visiting medical offices for checkups, screenings and tests will only raise costs even further. According to studies, preventive medicine thwarts little, though it does mean early diagnoses for relatively harmless ailments--and treatments for them.

As H. Gilbert Welch, a professor of medicine at the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy, contends, "recent expansions in the definitions of diabetes, high cholesterol and osteoporosis defined millions more as suddenly needing therapy. A new definition of 'abnormal bone density'...turned 6.8 million American women into osteoporosis patients literally overnight."

There is another vital aspect of preventive health care that many health professionals and bureaucrats simply refuse to accept: Some of us can't be helped.

Or maybe more accurately "don't want to be" helped. The unsettling thing about the government becoming increasingly obsessed with preventive care is that we may not have much of a choice in the matter.

In Saturday's WSJ, Dr. Abraham Verghese--himself a proponent of government driven health care reform--also weighed in on the myth of prevention:

It is true that if the prevention strategies we are talking about are behavioral things—eat better, lose weight, exercise more, smoke less, wear a seat belt—then they cost very little and they do save money by keeping people healthy.

But if your preventive strategy is medical, if it involves us, if it consists of screening, finding medical conditions early, shaking the bushes for high cholesterols, or abnormal EKGs, markers for prostate cancer such as PSA, then more often than not you don't save anything and you might generate more medical costs.

Prevention is a good thing to do, but why equate it with saving money when it won't? Think about this: discovering high cholesterol in a person who is feeling well, is really just discovering a risk factor and not a disease; it predicts that you have a greater chance of having a heart attack than someone with a normal cholesterol. Now you can reduce the probability of a heart attack by swallowing a statin, and it will make good sense for you personally, especially if you have other risk factors (male sex, smoking etc). But if you are treating a population, keep in mind that you may have to treat several hundred people to prevent one heart attack. Using a statin costs about $150,000 for every year of life it saves in men, and even more in women (since their heart-attack risk is lower)--I don't see the savings there.

Or take the coronary calcium scans or heart scan, which most authorities suggest is not a test to be done on people who have no symptoms, and which I think of as the equivalent of the miracle glow-in-the-dark minnow lure advertised on late night infommercials. It's a money maker, without any doubt, and some institutions actually advertise on billboards or in newspapers, luring you in for this 'cheap' and 'painless' way to get a look at your coronary arteries. If you take the test and find you have no calcium on your coronaries, you have learned that...you have no calcium on your coronaries. If they do find calcium on your coronaries, then my friend, you have just bought yourself some major worry. You will want to know, What does this mean? Are my coronary arteries narrowed to a trickle? Am I about to die? Is it nothing? Asking such questions almost inevitably leads to more tests: a stress test, an echocardiogram, a stress echo, a cardiac catheterization, stents and even cardiac bypass operations--all because you opted for a 'cheap' and 'painless' test--if only you'd never seen that billboard.

Obviously preventive medicine is a net good for society. Living longer and healthier lives because of technology and testing is one of the great achievements of modern medicine. But we should not expect it to be the panacea to pay for the costs of President Obama's transformative health care plans.

Unable To Save Themselves

In a piece at American Thinker Gary Larson sounds the death knell for "mainstream" journalism. While the body is still technically twitching, his pre-mortem autopsy finds the primary cause of death to be the demise of credible, objective reporting:

Why am I not totally surprised? Inbred journalism majors only reproduce what their inbred professors fed them. For a lover of even-handed journalism, and an ex-practitioner like myself, the outlook is bleak. Time was, in my days in newspapering, street-smart blue-collar kids without fancy degrees entered the field if they could write intelligently and honestly. Not rocket science, just tell the @#$%& truth. The pay was not terrific; reporting was a relatively easy field to enter.

Blue-collar kids worked their way to editor slots. They were not out to "save the [post-Watergate] world." These cubs just reported what happened, and who said what, without inventing stuff. "Go back," I was told by my crusty old city editor in my formative twenties, "to find out what the other side thinks of this proposal." Fairness was supreme to the guy--for all sides of the issue. (I had not a clue as to his political persuasion. I came to respect this more and more as time went on.)

As a Journalism school graduate I emerged with the quaint, rather new notion, that "interpretative journalism" (a term found in the very name of our 1960's textbook) was Gospel. Context was king. It was the pathway to "acing" the public affairs course. Inserting "frame of reference" into our stories was a must. I was graded down without "context" gratuitously offered.

When I entered the profession, my wise old city editor (a high school graduate) quickly disabused me of the notion of "context." "Leave the interpretation to the editorial side," he'd say.

Today the field is rife with highly educated reporters. Fresh from their university indoctrination, they are out to save the world...or save something.

For the last forty years or so, reporters who have behaved as if their mission was save the world and "make a difference" have done much to discredit journalism and contributed to the apparently irreversible decline of many of the field's leading institutions. It might be too late in the game to get back to the days of journalists simply trying to tell us what happened, but for those of us who still hanker for hard core news it would be a welcome shift. One that could maybe even salvage what's left of the industry.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Restless Dreams of Youth

The ageless battle to defame or defend the suburbs is once again joined. Matthew Archibold looks at the latest 'burb bashing flick from director Sam Mendes and finds himself more soothed than suffocated by suburban living:

I think I'm the bizarro Sam Mendes. I've embraced everything he fears.

The question sometimes comes up in conversation with old friends. What was the best time of your life? And I'm sometimes embarrassed to admit it but right now is the best time of my life. Truly. And I'm a short chubby bearded dad living in the suburbs. I mow my lawn. I pay bills. I talk to my wife about what she did that day. I change diapers. Lots of them. Sometimes we go get ice cream. I do all those things that angsty pubescents jeer at.

I've lived in the suburbs coming up on ten years. And I've yet to feel my soul sucked. I don't really do angst. I think I used to. But I think I've forgotten where I put my existential angst. I'm happy. And even more importantly, I'm content. I'm focused.

So often his characters are running around and saying they're looking to "feel" something. I think I'm content because I don't consider my feelings all that important. And because of that I feel things more intensely than I did ever before in my life. A child's utterances can have me laughing all day. I feel the pain of a parent who sees his child hurt. I feel tired just about all the time but it's the tired that comes from doing something you love. It's not the weary kind of tired that Mendes' characters seem to feel.

And finally, there's one thing I don't ever remember hearing from Mendes' characters: God.

God, thankfully, is at the center of my life. And that puts me in proper perspective. Now if, like Mendes' character seem to often do, I found myself at the center of my own universe I'd be pretty depressed too.

Paul Zummo's post at First Thoughts provided the link to Archibold's piece and provided further thoughts on the matter:

That said, I can understand some of the antipathy towards certain aspects of suburban life. I'm not a big fan of the new developments where the houses all look the same and your options for eating out are all at the strip mall a mile away. But that's a personal preference. Like Matt, I do not understand the sniveling, jeering attitude taken against the suburbs--an attitude that is not exclusive to teenagers and hipsters in their twenties.

Most of this antipathy is overwrought and based on an ungenerous evaluation of people's reasons for choosing to live outside the city. Some do it because of economic concerns. Others might just want a little more space. Whatever the reason, I don't think we're all a bunch of lily-white, anti-social people afraid to deal with unlike people.

UPDATE-- Tim from Colorado e-mails with more on stifling in suburbia:

I have to say that Matthew Archibold's experience in the suburbs is very much like my own. Growing up, my home town in Michigan was a suburb of a larger, blue collar, city. My home town was a great place to grow up; the larger city, not so much. Growing up, I never thought badly of my suburban life experience.

We moved to Parker, CO from Denver 13 years ago. We did so for many reasons; one, we could get a house that was twice as big for the same money; and two, Parker seemed to be a town that enjoyed being called that little horse-town southeast of Denver.

My kids love our suburban neighborhood. We have a neighborhood rec center. Our neighborhood has a lot of open green space where the kids can play. Our neighborhood backs up to an open space with a bike path and creek that wind throughout the open space. Our rec center staff organizes family parties throughout the summer at the rec center pool. Our town has a youth sports organization that organizes youth baseball, softball, football, lacrosse, volleyball, basketball, swimming, wrestling, and roller hockey leagues. The town rec center organizes adult sports leagues.

Thanks to you, I now find out from high-power thinkers that my life in suburbia is just a hollow empty shell of what it could be if I only had chosen to stay in an urban center. In thirteen years that thought had never crossed my mind. I am a regular soul-less zombie out here. What a fool I must be to not see that living with my family in a small apartment with no green spaces to play, stacked on top of thousands of other people but not knowing more than three people in the building, relying on public transportation to not come and go as I please, and making sure my family is not on the city streets after dark, is far more preferable to life in suburbia. I guess I am a bad citizen; I should raise my kids in an urban center so that they can see for themselves that their only choice is to live in an urban area hope the city leaders can somehow provide my kids a childhood.

If there's anybody living in an urban center reading this, please, do not come for me; save yourself and stay where you are.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Last Call?

For the last four years Eric Felten has been performing yeoman's work by providing weekly reports on the past, present, and future of the American cocktail culture in the pages of the Wall Street Journal. His insights, analysis, and recommendations have proven invaluable for those of us trying to muddle our way through the complicated and at times confusing world of fine drinking. But eventually everything runs its course and Felten announced that he's moving on from one of most enviable writing beats with his Valedictory Toast in last Saturday's paper:

Since September 2005, I've profiled more than 150 cocktails, punches, slings, fizzes, highballs, bounces, smashes and juleps. There may be a drink or two that I've neglected--my 8-year-old daughter, Greta, champions a morning "Milkshake" of two parts skim milk to one part Danimals yogurt, and with a cheerful tenacity that suggests she has a promising future in PR, Greta has been urging me to feature her Milkshake in a column. But the Milkshake notwithstanding, I think I've been able to get to most of the concoctions worth mixing--or at least those worth a thousand words.

Writing this column has been one of the best gigs in journalism, and not just because I've been able to fob my bar bills off on The Wall Street Journal. The readers of How's Your Drink? have made the experience a treat. You've been a remarkable resource, suggesting wonderful drinks I would never otherwise have heard of. And in this coarse and caustic age, you have been gracious correspondents, confirming my faith that worthy drinks inspire worthy drinkers.

Starting the week after next, I will be taking on a new challenge, writing the De Gustibus column on the Taste page of the Weekend Journal every Friday. It's a chance to look at American culture and the way we live today from a perspective somewhat wider than that behind the bar.

That doesn't mean How's Your Drink? is going away. I will continue to write the occasional cocktail column as the spirits move me. New drinks are being devised every day, and I look forward to documenting those that have a chance to enter the hallowed halls of the cocktail canon. Well, or at least those that taste good.

Fare thee well Mr. Felten.

Seasons Change

Summer is really kicking into high gear this week with forecasts of hot, humid weather in the Upper Midwest. And while we should cling to the all-too-short season for all its worth, we should also recognize that the falling leaves and crisp air of autumn harken in the not-too-distant future. The pain of letting go of summer and embracing fall should be just a tad bit easier this year with the release of two much anticipated books.

One comes out just as summer begins its farewell:

This is the culminating novel in Ferrigno's post-apocalyptic Assassin trilogy, following Prayers for the Assassin (2006) and Sins of the Assassin (2008), which was recently selected as a finalist for the Edgar Award. Key leaders are planning to reunite the U.S., long divided into an Islamic Republic and a Christian Bible Belt. Elite Muslim warrior Rakkim Epps' wife, Sarah, believes the path to reunification lies in retrieving a relic of Christ's cross kept in a safe room beneath Washington, D.C., an area long looted by scavengers known as zombies who are willing to risk contamination from nuclear fallout in order to retrieve and sell treasured items. Also interested in reuniting America is the Old One, a 150-year-old despot who has achieved near immortality through genetic engineering. Now, though, his time is running out as his body begins to reject enhancements to his system. He sends his ruthless, voluptuous daughter, Baby, to recruit Rakkim into his plan to achieve world domination. Ferrigno wraps up his provocative trilogy in grand style, alternating scenes of inventive mayhem with sweeping indictments of spineless politicians and fanatical extremists.

The first two books in the series have been great fun to read and I expect more of the same with "Heart of the Assassin." You can read the first chapter at Robert Ferrigno's Blog.

The second release will come when fall is already underway:

There is no product description yet at Amazon, but this is a pretty summary of We Are Doomed:

Derbyshire aims in this book to pour cold water on all "schemes for political improvement," both at home and abroad, to argue that our civilization is in its twilight, and to show that while there are things we could do to save the situation, we won't do any of them, because we have sunk into a collective mindset that won't let us. Hence: We are doomed.

It's not a frivolous subject. Still, every sinking ship should, like the Titanic, have a band playing on deck as she goes down. He aims to bring the bad news with a light touch, to highlight some of the ironies, and to emulate the late, great Samuel Beckett, who seasoned his sermons on futility ("we give birth astride a grave") with jokes and slapstick. Furthermore, the acquiescence of conservatives in the happy talk has been a big part of the problem. That should never have happened. Conservatism ought to be pessimistic. It has always had a strong streak of pessimism, from Hobbes and Burke, through Lord Salisbury and Calvin Coolidge, to Pat Buchanan (DEATH OF THE WEST) and Mark Steyn (AMERICA ALONE) in our own time. Derbyshire aims to out-gloom all of them, thereby sparking a needed debate within conservatism as to the proper temperament of the movement.

A tome sure to warm the cold hearts of conservative curmudgeons everywhere. While I don't share Derbyshire's sense of existential doom in the higher matters (with God there is always hope), when it comes to the affairs of men I find myself becoming more and more pessimistic with the passing years. Happily pessimistic of course.

Best to pre-order these two books now. Summer'll be over before you know it.

God's Witness To Love

After Mass yesterday, the kids picked up (with a little help from dad's wallet) a special Father's Day gift package being sold in the church lobby. For Mother's Day they sell roses. For Father's Day they sell a liter of Dad's root beer with a small bag wrapped around the bottle containing a few candy bars, peanuts, and a card with the prayer "God Bless You Dad":

I thank You, Lord, for my father. Grant me to realize the depth of his love for me, so often left unspoken.

Help me to appreciate his great and continuous sacrifices. His fatherly care reflects Your divine care; his strength, Your power; his understanding, Your wisdom. He is Your faithful servant and image.

What greater gift can there be than this...

To be God's witness to love...to be a father.

You really couldn't ask for a better gift.

Hop To It

The July issue of Bon Appetit magazine is all about summer barbecuing. It also includes a list of the Top Twelve American IPAs to enjoy with your food:

The American versions, particularly those brewed on the West Coast, have been labeled "extreme beers," owing to their amped-up use of hops. And in turn, their devotees are appropriately called "hop heads." Take Lagunitas Brewing Company in Northern California, which helped pioneer the West Coast style in the mid '90s. "In hops and alcohol, we're bigger than the British," says Tony Magee, founder of Lagunitas. "We had to find ways to differentiate ourselves from traditional European styles. We love the flavor of American hops--they're so distinct with that resiny flavorful bitterness--so we took our pale ale and upped the malt by 35 percent and the hops by 40 percent. We figured if some hops is good, then more is better." The Lagunitas IPA has a pleasant amount of bitterness, with an IBU (International Bitterness Units) of 45.6. To give you some means of comparison, British versions hover around 30 IBU. Meanwhile in Minnesota, Omar Ansari at Surly Brewing Co. has turned up the dial on hops to a full roar for what he calls "a tempest on the tongue" with his Furious IPA, which has a whopping 99 IBU. At the Maui Brewing Co., the Big Swell IPA features a comparably modest 60 IBU, and is as refreshing as one might expect from a brewery in a tropical locale. But whatever their flavor differences, one important commonality that all American craft IPAs have is that they go remarkably well with food, particularly spicy and fatty dishes.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Day Dreams Of My Father

In an otherwise ordinary New York Times story on President Obama's message to fathers, we discover this nugget:

After the session Friday, Mr. Obama's guests headed to the South Lawn for barbecue cooked by the celebrity chef Bobby Flay and mentoring sessions between youths and local fathers, celebrity fathers and every other type of father. In one mentoring group under a tree, the White House budget director, Peter R. Orszag, sat wearing sunglasses and looking poised to offer mentoring but was seemingly unsure of exactly what to say to the 11 young men assembled before him.

No worry. Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. soon appeared. "Orszag!" he yelled, then sat next to him and talked at length with the young men.

Is there any other way VP Biden communicates? You don't see a lot of stories with the line "VP Biden was short and to the point in his remarks today." One can only imagine what it was like to be on the receiving end of Mr. Biden's mentoring. At least there was probably some good shade under the tree.

For Civilization

In her WSJ column this week on Iran Peggy Noonan--in her typical fashion--is all over the map and throws a lot out there. Much of it misses the mark, but when it comes to what the U.S. should do now, I think she's on target:

What now? Americans, and the West, should be who they are, friends of freedom. Iranians on the street made sure they got their Twitter reports and videos here. They trust us to spread the word through our technology. A lot of the signs they held were in English. They trust us to be for change and to advance their cause, and they're right to trust us.

Should there at this point, more than a week into the story, be a formal declaration of support from the U.S. government? Certainly it's time for an indignant statement on the abuses, including killings and beatings, perpetrated by the government and against the opposition. It's never wrong to be on the side of civilization. Beyond that, what would be efficacious? It must be asked if a formal statement of support for the rebels would help them. And they'd have a better sense of it than we.

If the American president, for reasons of prudence, does not make a public statement of the government's stand, he could certainly refer, as if it is an obvious fact because it is an obvious fact, to whom the American people are for. And that is the protesters on the street. If he were particularly striking in his comments about how Americans cannot help but love their brothers and sisters who stand for greater freedom and democracy in the world, all the better. The American people, after all, are not their government. Our sentiments are not controlled by the government, and this may be a timely moment to point that out, and remind the young of Iran, who are the future of Iran, that Americans are a future-siding people.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Beer Of The Week (Vol XII)

Like many niche interest groups, you can find more than your fair share of arrogance and attitude among craft beer enthusiasts (a.k.a. Beer Geeks). For some of them, there seems to be a never-ending competition to be the purest of the purists. Like music geeks who are always crowing about the latest obscure band no one's ever heard of to prove their superior music cred, beer geeks love to talk about hard to find, limited release beers that only specialists like themselves know about. Anything widely available is immediately dismissed as unworthy of their attention.

I don't consider myself a beer geek. While I love beer, I really have no desire to get involved in the arcane minutia that the hardest of the hard core live for. And I have no desire to brew my own beer. Since I consider cooking a poor payoff of time versus reward (I spent an hour in the kitchen to get this?), I can't imagine investing hours in brewing a beer that in all likelihood would be an inferior product to something I could easily pick up at my friendly neighborhood liquor store. When in comes to beer, I know the meaning of comparative advantage.

So when I approach a beer, the only thing I really care about is whether I'm going to enjoy drinking it or not. While I might be suspicious of attempts by the macro brewers to enter the craft beer field, I don't automatically reject them. I rate 'em as I drink 'em.

Which is exactly what I did with this week's beer Blue Moon Honey Moon Summer Ale. Blue Moon Brewing Company is probably best known for their signature beer, a witbier often served with a slice of orange that has became fairly popular in recent years. Oh yeah, and it's owned by Coors (now Molson-Coors). This alone has caused apoplexy among many beer geeks who view anything associated with a major brewer the same way a vampire views sunrise.

Personally, I think Blue Moon's Belgian White is a pretty good beer and have enjoyed it in the past without a worry about its owner (Who own Blue Moon? Owns, owns.) Therefore my rating of Blue Moon Honey Moon Summer Ale was done without preconditions or prejudice.

Simple brown bottle. The label has a brush-stroked summer scene of a full moon over a lake with a dock and rowboat in the foreground. Sort of a Van Gogh-ish feel to it. Yellow background with a classic style font.

Beer Style: Wheat Ale

Alcohol by Volume: 5.2%

COLOR (0-2): Light golden color. A little too clear for a wheat. 1

AROMA (0-2): Slight. You can pick up wheat and fruit. 1

HEAD (0-2): Full and white. 2

TASTE (0-5): Light honey flavor with hints of citrus. Refreshing but not much there. 2

AFTERTASTE (0-2): Weak and empty. Leaves you feeling flat. 0

OVERALL (0-6): Looks pretty good in the glass, but falls short on flavor. It's a unremarkable offering that definitely does not belong on a list of the top beers of summer. 2

TOTAL SCORE (0-19): 8

Thursday, June 18, 2009

One Threw Over The Cuckoo's Nest

We give up. So far we've resisted getting baited into the controversy that seems to have already dragged on forever. But our resistance has its limits and we've reached the point where we can hold out no longer.

Since the talk in these parts is pretty much all-Favre all the time these days, we're going to break our boycott and add our two cents to a matter that's garnered attention and interest far beyond reasonable expectations. It is a phenomenon that defies rational explanation and borders on mass delusion. The reaction of many Viking fans is almost a textbook definition of the madness of crowds.

So we offer a voice of sanity calling out in the wilderness of hysteria with a simple message: No Favre, no way, no how. No super star, no Super Bowl, no super-sized expectations. T-Jack is a train wreck and Sage is probably going to end up being the little quarterback that couldn't (I think I can, I think I can...), but I'd rather suffer these tools gladly than see number four wearing purple (shudder). Some things are just not meant to be and this is clearly one of them.

Please stop the madness. And vote in our special Favre poll on the left sidebar.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Real Politik

A little follow up on yesterday's post urging prudence in the American reaction to events in Iran. While I think that we need to step back a bit and see how events play out, I completely understand the impulse to want to jump in with full-throated support for the protesters. When you see what appears to be a democratic revolution in the making, it's natural for us to want to encourage it and hope for it to succeed. In recent years, we've witnessed freedom movements take to the streets in places like Georgia, Ukraine, Lebanon, Kyrgyzstan, and Burma and cheered them on. The idea that you're watching history being made is a powerful one and there's a lot of appeal in feeling that you're playing some part (however small) in it through your support.

But sometimes I think that it's almost too easy for those of us in the West to sit in front of our keyboards, televisions, cell phones, etc. and vocalize our support for the revolution--be it Rose, Orange, Cedar, Tulip, Saffron, or Green--by offering to stand with the freedom seekers with the promise, "We're with you!" The reality of course is that we're really not. Our support for these causes entails almost no risk for us at all. Meanwhile, those whose revolutions we are encouraging are often putting their lives on the line on a daily basis.

And whether these revolutions succeed or fail, six months from now most of us will have moved on and forgotten about countries that for a few days or weeks were the center of our attention. How many Americans do you think are still following events in Ukraine or have any idea what the political situation is like there now?

Yes, Iran is different. Iran has been the focus of American attention for years and will likely continue to be in the near future. And a true revolution in Iran could possibly alter the strategic dynamic of the region in a positive way.

But before we allow ourselves to get too swept up in the movement of the moment, it wouldn't hurt to pause long enough to make sure we know what we're really getting into. Do the current protests reflect the feelings of the majority of the Iranian people or only the most noticeable groups? :

There is no denying that the news clips from Tehran are dramatic, unprecedented in violence and size since the mullahs came to power in 1979. They're possibly even augurs of real change. But can we trust them? Most of the demonstrations and rioting I've seen in the news are taking place in north Tehran, around Tehran University and in public places like Azadi Square. These are, for the most part, areas where the educated and well-off live--Iran's liberal middle class. These are also the same neighborhoods that little doubt voted for Mir-Hossein Mousavi, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's rival, who now claims that the election was stolen. But I have yet to see any pictures from south Tehran, where the poor live. Or from other Iranian slums.

Some facts about Iran's election will hopefully emerge in the coming weeks, with perhaps even credible evidence that the election was rigged. But until then, we need to add a caveat to everything we hear and see coming out of Tehran. For too many years now, the Western media have looked at Iran through the narrow prism of Iran's liberal middle class--an intelligentsia that is addicted to the Internet and American music and is more ready to talk to the Western press, including people with money to buy tickets to Paris or Los Angeles. Reading Lolita in Tehran is a terrific book, but does it represent the real Iran?

UPDATE: The question that I don't think we can answer at this point is, do the protesters represent the real Iran?

More from John Derbyshire at NRO's The Corner:

Is Iran's population seething in anger at a rigged election? Or are the seethers just some segment of the urban middle classes? I have no idea, and am not convinced anyone knows. Seems to me there's a lot of wishful thinking going around. U.S. politics is full of surprises. What does any of us know about Iranian politics?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Half A Mo'

One of the more troubling aspects of the way the "loyal opposition" conducted themselves during the Bush years was the tendency of liberals to almost immediately criticize and second guess President Bush's foreign policy decisions. These knee-jerk critiques often proved to pointless and unfounded over time as events played out. And many who defended Bush's decisions oft gave deference to the office of POTUS with the rationale that unless you were privy to the same information and intelligence the president was, you couldn't necessarily accurately judge the merits of those decisions.

Now, it appears that much of this deference has disappeared as conservative commentators are flailing President Obama for his reaction (or lack of) to the turmoil in Iran following the election. I'm not going to pretend that I have the foggiest idea what's really going on in Iran because I don't. But while there is widespread acceptance that the election was highly fraudulent if not stolen in most quarters, there are also authoritative voices who say that however imperfect the election may have been Ahmadinejad did actually win.

At this point, I don't think we know enough to draw decisive conclusions about what really happened. But I am willing to give President Obama the benefit of the doubt and assume that he knows a lot more than we do about the Iranian election and his reticence to act or speak more forcefully may be based on his enhanced view of the unfolding events.

I also think that we should tread carefully when it comes to supporting and encouraging the budding protest movement in Iran. There are real and practical limits to what the U.S. could or would be willing to do and we need to be smart about not letting the rhetoric outpace that reality.

In today's WSJ, Bret Stephens--one of the critics of President Obama's silence--makes a very apt historical comparison:

Someday a future president may have to apologize to Iranians for Mr. Obama's nonfeasance, just as Mr. Obama apologized for the Eisenhower administration's meddling. But the better Eisenhower parallel is with Hungary in 1956. Then as now a popular uprising coalesced around a figure (Imre Nagy in Hungary; Mir Hossein Mousavi in Iran), who had once been a creature of the system. Then as now it was buoyed by inspiring American rhetoric about freedom and democracy coming over Voice of America airwaves.

And then as now the administration effectively turned its back on the uprising when U.S. support could have made a difference. Hungary would spend the next 33 years in the Soviet embrace. One senses a similar fate for Iran, where Mr. Ahmadinejad's "victory" signals the ultimate ascendancy of the ultra-militants in the Revolutionary Guards Corps and the paramilitary Basij, intent on getting what they want and doing as they please even in defiance of their old clerical masters. Which means: Get ready for a second installment of the Iranian cultural revolution. Mr. Ahmadinejad signaled as much when he promised to go after the corrupt elements of the old regime, particularly the circle around former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who openly opposed the incumbent prior to Friday's poll.

While I agree with Stephens that Hungary in 1956 provides a good parallel to Iran today, I draw a very different lesson from him. One of the tragedies of the Hungarian uprising against the Soviets was that they were lead to believe that the West would come to their aid in their moment of need and stop the Soviets from crushing their bid for freedom. But the reality was that the West--in particular the United States--was not about to go to war with the USSR over Hungary. So at the end of the day, all of the moral support in the world meant nothing when the Soviets rolled their tanks in.

Today, we are not going to go to war with Iran to support those in the streets of Tehran demonstrating against the regime. And while it's true that there are a whole host of things we can do short of war to show our support, we should be careful not to make promises we can't deliver on or set unrealistic expectations among the Iranian dissidents.

Given that perspective, I'm not yet ready to jump on board the bandwagon demanding that President Obama immediately do more. Let's give the president a little more time and his office a little more of the deference on foreign affairs that it deserves. Patience and prudence.

Separated At Birth?

Deceased comedian not usually known for playing the straight man John Candy


...former lesbian now undergoing sex change to become a straight man Chastity Chaz Bono?

Memories Can't Wait

Memory can be a marvelous but mysterious thing. As you get older, you realize that events that you assume are shared memories sometimes are not. When I talk to my parents about things that I remember from childhood, I find that they have no recollection of particular events that I can recall vividly. Likewise some of the memories they mention seem completely foreign to me.

Usually when I discuss such things with my brother our memory banks are more synched up. But on rare occasion, we too find that what one remembers clearly the other is hazy on.

The latest revelation of this was memory discrepancy was the movie Go Tell the Spartans (1978). I very clearly remember seeing this in the theater with my dad and brother. It was my first "R" rated movie and I recall that it made quite an impression on me at the time. But when I mentioned it to JB the other day, he drew a complete blank. He didn't remember the movie at all and definitely didn't place it as his first "R" viewing. He asked me why our dad would have taken two young boys (me ten and JB eight) to an adult movie about the Vietnam War.

Of course, I knew the answer because I remember a lot of the details of that night. It was raining and a little cold (likely spring or fall). We intended to see whatever Pink Panther was playing at the time, but it was sold out. I don't remember exactly which theater it was, only that it had two screens. Since we couldn't get into the Pink Panther flick, our dad must have decided that a war movie, even though "R" rated, wouldn't be that damaging to our little minds of mush.

I can also remember many scenes from the movie and I know for a fact that we acted them out for days in weeks afterwards in our own games of war. A VC guerilla popping up out of a spider hole in an ambush was one that we particularly sought to emulate.

And yet, while I remember all that JB's got nuthin' when it comes to this event. The mysteries of memory.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Curious, George

An interesting event on tap in Brooklyn Center on June 30th:

VIVA PALESTINA : A lifeline from the U.S. to Gaza

Not a lot of details on the contents of the evening's program or why Spanish revolutionary exhortations are being employed to name programs to delivery supplies on behalf of the Palestinians. But you probably have an idea what's in store when you see who the headliners are:

George Galloway and Osama Abu Irshaid

Yes, good ol' George, Member of Parliament representing Mecca, to this day an unapologetic supporter of the Soviet Union, and star of U.K. media. Last time we heard George's name in these parts he was being investigated for being on the receiving end of some rather dubious financial transactions as part of the Oil for Food scheme. While his supporters trumpet that he was exonerated, the jury is still out on the extent of Galloway's involvement in any illicit activity and we will likely never know the whole truth of the matter.

He's also been the victim of some strange "attacks" including the infamous stress ball incident:

On 22 April 2008, Galloway was campaigning in London from an open-top bus. While touring central London ahead of the next week's elections the MP was knocked unconscious by a rubber stress ball which was thrown at him from a first floor window of a nearby office building by an office worker. The ball, around the size of a tennis ball, hit Galloway on the side of the head which caused him to become dazed.[48]

Not really the kind of event likely to immortalized in protest song. And it probably didn't do much to build his revolutionary street cred.

Another aspect of Galloway's visit to Minnesota is that he's recently been banned in Canada:

On 20 March 2009, Galloway was advised by the Canada Border Services Agency he was deemed inadmissible to Canada on "security grounds" due to his involvement in the Viva Palestina aid convoy to the Gaza Strip following the 2008-2009 Israel-Gaza conflict.[131] The Gaza Strip is governed by Hamas, which is on Canada's list of terrorist organisations.

But hey, one country's terrorist organization is another appeaser's freedom fighters, right? That's a point I'm sure Galloway will revisit during his appearance here.

In case you're wondering who's behind bringing Galloway to the Twin Cities:

Endorsed by: AlMadinah Cultural Center, Muslim Student Association at the UoM (MSA), Women Against Military Madness (WAMM), Committees for Palestinian Rights (CPR), Palestinian Institute, The International Jewish anti-Zionist Network, Twin Cities (IJAN TC)

Pretty much what you would call the usual suspects.

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Pint Is Half Full

Taking a break from the Beer O' The Week today. If all goes according to schedule, the series should resume next week. But the Beer Ratings Page has been updated and now includes three-hundred-and-seventy-four beers.

The Recommended Reading page has also been updated.

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

Finally got around to reading Iris Chang's "The Rape of Nanking" (the Chinese city now usually called Nanjing). The book is the story of the wide-spread massacres and atrocities committed by Japanese troops after taking the city in 1937. Like Richard Rhode's Masters of Death: The SS-Einsatzgruppen and the Invention of the Holocaust (which details the actions of SS units who began the "Final Solution" on the eastern front) the horrific nature of the acts makes for difficult reading at times.

I was struck by the similarity between the reaction of the Chinese civilians and soldiers to their fate and that of many Jews during the Holocaust. Despite plenty of obvious evidence to the contrary, they clung to a belief that they would be okay right up until the very end. The Japanese troops carrying out the killings were often outnumbered ten and even a hundred to one by their prisoners yet there were very few instances of any resistance even though the Chinese likely would have been able to overwhelm their captors had they acted together. It's probably part of human nature at some level to refuse to accept that a horrible fate awaits and to rationalize your way into inaction.

I don't know if there are any lessons that one can take from this (and hopefully they would never need to be applied), but one seems to be that if armed men come to take you away you should assume the worst. Resistance at that point, even if futile, is probably preferable to the alternative. It reminds me of how people are usually advised that if you are getting car jacked or kidnapped, the best chance of escape is in the initial moments of the attack.

Unlike the Holocaust, the Rape of Nanking has not received the historical attention or study that it deserves. I would venture to guess that most Americans aren't even aware that it occurred and few appreciate the scale and scope of the murderous brutality. Chang's book is a good place to start to remedy that ignorance.

Who You Gonna Call?

Just in case you didn't think doing your taxes was already complicated enough comes news that the IRS wants to tax your corporate mobile phone:

The use of company-issued mobile phones could trigger new federal income taxes on millions of Americans as a "fringe benefit."

The Internal Revenue Service proposed employers assign 25% of an employee's annual phone expenses as a taxable benefit. Under that scenario, a worker in the 28% tax bracket, whose wireless device costs the company $1,500 a year, could see $105 in additional federal income tax.

The IRS, in a notice issued this week, said employees could avoid tax liability if they showed proof they used personal cellphones for nonbusiness calls during work hours. The agency also could decide on a set number of phone minutes as "minimal personal use" that would be untaxed.

In a third option proposed by the IRS, employers could use a statistical sampling to determine what portion of workers' cellphone use is personal and how much is work-related. Workers would be taxed on the difference.

Gee that sounds great. All I have to do show "proof" that I used personal cellphones for nonbusiness calls during work hours or my employer can use precious resources to conduct a statistical sampling to determine how much I should pay? Yeah, that doesn't like either a total nightmare for the individual or a cost-increasing, productivity-dampening process for the employer.

While the IRS looks at this as a potential revenue windfall, the actual outcomes will be that companies will stop issuing cell phones to workers instead asking them to submit expenses when they use personal cell phones for business and/or individuals deciding to not use their business cell phones as often less they risk incurring an additional tax burden. Either way, NO ONE wins.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Just a Bit Outside

In honor of Mitch Berg throwing out the first pitch at last night's Saints game, I direct you the video library of the Top 10 Most Embarrassing First Pitches of All Time.

I trust Mitch's effort was a little better than the likes of what Mariah Carey, Carl Lewis, and the guy in the dinosaur suit pulled off. Then again, that oversized foam rubber AM1280 the Patriot anthropamorphic Bill of Rights with the 50 inch biceps costume he was wearing is a tad constricting. Hopefully video of his performance will surface soon.

Rank and File

Newsweek has taken a momentary break from deifying President Obama to publish their list of the Top 1500 public high schools in America:

Public schools are ranked according to a ratio devised by Jay Mathews: the number of Advanced Placement, Intl. Baccalaureate and/or Cambridge tests taken by all students at a school in 2008 divided by the number of graduating seniors. All of the schools on the list have an index of at least 1.000; they are in the top 6 percent of public schools measured this way.

I was curious to see how our local schools stacked up. This year, twenty-eight Minnesota public high schools made the cut:

105 St. Louis Park
108 Edina
227 Southwest Minneapolis
491 St. Anthony Village
529 South Minneapolis
588 Eastview Apple Valley
630 Como Park St. Paul
640 Mahtomedi
734 Patrick Henry Minneapolis
744 Minnetonka
823 Lakeville North
833 Central St. Paul
912 Irondale New Brighton
939 Wayzata
954 Century Rochester
1045 Eden Prairie
1095 Simley Inver Grove Heights
1117 Moorhead
1120 Hopkins
1180 North St. Paul
1238 Stillwater Area
1258 South St. Paul
1270 Eagan
1279 Prior Lake
1309 Sibley West St. Paul
1398 Mounds View Arden Hills
1399 Robbinsdale Cooper New Hope
1475 Mankato West

A couple of things from the list stand out. The first is that there are only three schools from outside the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area (which reflecting a nationwide pattern). The second is that it seems like most of the metro area high schools made the list. I don't know how many public high schools there are total in the metro area (a few minutes spent Googling for that number proved fruitless), but if twenty-five made the list it would almost seem more newsworthy to note those that didn't.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Today's News, Eight Months Ago

Before I got sidetracked with the many moods and nicknames of Jim Oberstar, this was the *important* story I was researching. From the USA Today, a story on the ethically questionable fringe benefits received by members of Congress from companies lobbying them and their committees. It includes this mention of Mr. Aviation:
Minnesota, transportation groups are among the donors to a law school professorship named for Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., chairman of the House transportation committee. Overall, about 20 transportation companies and industry groups are helping to underwrite the James L. Oberstar Professorship of Law and Public Policy, according to a release by the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul.
A very suspicious set of circumstances. No less suspicious than when I pointed it out back on October of 2008. I'm not looking for any credit of course, just happy to see the mainstream media finally catching up to the cutting edge journalism taking place at Fraters Libertas. In that post, the next steps in the investigation were outlined:

I cannot locate any listing of the specific corporations funding the Oberstar professorship. Free advice to any political reporters out there doing this job for a living. 1) Acquire that list. 2) Check for earmarks or any special treatment for those corporations coming out of Oberstar's committee in the recent past. 3) If none, wait for the upcoming session and see if any of those corporations have business in front of Oberstar's committee or receive any earmarks or special treatment. 4) Report findings. 5) Write speech for Pulitzer ceremony.
Whaddya know, USA Today has attempted step 1:

Law school spokesman Chato Hazelbaker said more than $475,000 had been raised but would not release a donor list.
Stonewalling at St. Thomas. Strange, I wonder what they have to hide? Whatever it is, it looks like my decision to do absolutely nothing to chase down the story myself was vindicated again!

Some information was uncovered by USA Today in reviewing lobbyist disclosure reports:
The reports show several transportation companies donated last year. Among them: Oldcastle Materials, which makes gravel and concrete and builds roads and bridges, gave $10,000 to the law school in October. Oberstar "is a long-serving member of Congress and has advanced public policy in areas such as the economy, transportation and public works," company spokeswoman Joyce Watson says. "It was a good match for us."
I bet it was. I'm sure donating $10K for a scholarship in the name of a committee chairman the company has no business with would not be so readily approved by accounting. (Sorry, Chairman of the House Animal Husbandry Subcommittee -- aka, "Mr. Horse Inseminator" -- you'll have to keep looking.)

How does the Voice of Bicyclists in the Nation respond to this appearance of impropriety? His staff has a number of excuses for your review, feel free to choose any you like:

John Schadl, Oberstar's spokesman, says the fundraising has been approved by the House ethics committee and has not influenced his policy actions. Oberstar has not solicited contributions, Schadl says.

The congressman did attend a reception organized by the university last October at the Canadian Embassy in Washington where the scholarship was announced, Schadl says. "There were obviously donors there," Schadl says, "but
he really didn't know who they were."

It's the old "Wait a minute, you're telling me the lobbyists in attendance at a party thrown to announce the underwriting of my named scholarship might have given money to underwrite my named scholarship! I didn't see that coming!" excuse.

That sounds plausible. That is, If you've been regularly riding your bicycle into cement walls without wearing a helmet and/or you're a shameless career politician who believes he can get away with virtually anything and his constituency will never, ever vote him out of office.

Incidentally, the USA Today article led off with some anecdotes about another common ethics dodge in Congress, getting lobbyists to help pay for official portraits to be created and to be hung in government offices. Oberstar was not featured in this part of the article. But that doesn't necessarily mean Oberstar didn't get in on this narcissistic bandwagon.

This masterpiece just happens to hang in the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Hearing Room.

Who paid for it? Who knows? I can find no mention of the funding source. The revered journalists at Minnpost covered the portrait unveiling in a trio of celebratory stories, but never got around to even broaching the subject of who footed the bill for this powerful DFL stalwart. (And the fact that Democrats were performing like trained seals at a recent Minnpost fundraiser in order to keep them in business? If you asked Jim Oberstar - mere coincidence!)

This community newspaper link has more information on the portrait, but leaves the funding source hazy. The best we get is:

A portrait painter whose work was commissioned by Minnesota Congressman Jim Oberstar will be teaching portraiture and figure drawing courses starting this week at River Ridge Arts in Burnsville.
Does "commissioned" mean paid for or just that he ordered it? Beats me. But the context of the USA today article on this practice (in this case, for Rep. Jerry Lewis) does not give me assurance:

Nearly three-quarters of the money raised for the portrait came from special-interest groups with business before Congress, federal records show.

Was Oberstar's set-up of a similar nature? Now that I've got the gears going, maybe we'll hear more facts from a professional reporter in the next 6 - 8 months.

We conclude with this final quote from Jim Oberstar, regarding his own portrait and the artist who created it:
She really finds the nature of the character and the meaning of the person and she lets that person speak in the portrait," said Oberstar. "She reminds me of Michelangelo when he completed the sculpture of Moses and struck it with his chisel and said, 'speak!'"
Another nickname born, he's the Moses of Congressional portraits. If he doesn't say so himself.

The Hero With a Thousand Faces

The newspaper the Pequot Lakes Echo catches up with Rep. Jim Oberstar promoting a new federally funded bike trail in northern Minnesota:

As chair of the U.S. House of Representatives' Transportation Committee, Oberstar is called the voice of bicyclists in the nation.
It's true, that's what he's called. In fact, at the Potomac, Maryland Pizza King just last week, customers could clearly hear over the public address system: Voice of Bicyclists in the Nation, your pizza is ready. Pizza ready for the Voice of Bicyclists in the Nation.

That's not to say there still isn't some confusion about how to address Chairman Oberstar when he marches into the room. According to a St. Thomas University press release (as previously reported on Fraters Libertas):
[Oberstar] is a past chairman of the Aviation Subcommittee, where he became known as Mr. Aviation.
A good rule of thumb for constituents lucky enough to meet him in person, when Oberstar is wearing form fitting spandex shorts, he's the Voice of Bicyclists in the Nation, when he's wearing the beanie with the propeller on top, he's Mr. Aviation.

I can only hope it ends there with the nicknames, but it may not. It seems any transportation related issue or bloated bureaucracy this guy touches, he owns. He comes to personify their very essence and subsumes their identity. Therefore, we cannot rule out that Jim Oberstar is also commonly known by these transportation nicknames around Capitol Hill:

-- The Sultan of Light Rail

-- The Best Friend High Occupancy Vehicle Lanes Ever Had

-- Ethanolics Anonymous

-- The Man Who Loved Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials

-- Señor Pogo Stick

I see one nickname, that Oberstar no doubt covets, is already taken. Again from the Pequot Lakes Echo:
Oberstar praised Terry McGaughey, often called the godfather of the Paul Bunyan Trail, for his vision years ago to turn the abandoned rail bed into a paved recreational trail.
According to reports, in order to accomplish this, Mr. McGaughey wacked the heads of the other 5 paved recreational trail families, then made the railroad "an offer they couldn't refuse."

UPDATE: Another potential nickname for Oberstar: Teamster Snuggle Buddy

UPDATE II: Another alias uncovered:

It was during the Delta-Northwest merger discussions and related testimony before Congress that I first began to pay close attention to Oberstar's remarks and motivations. When asked if there would be any airline mergers, it was Oberstar who responded "Hell, no." Thus my nickname for the Congressman, Jim
"Hell NO"berstar.

Running In The Open Field

The polls have closed and the results are in for the candidate you would like to see on the Republican ticket for Minnesota governor in 2010. The votes were pretty well distributed, but you can see a pretty clear separation between the contenders and the pretenders.

  • Jeff Johnson 13.59%

  • Marty Seifert 11.65%

  • Joe Mauer 10.19%

  • Norm Coleman 7.77%

  • Brian Sullivan 7.28%

  • Rod Grams 7.28%

  • Pat Anderson 6.80%

  • Mark Kennedy 6.31%

  • Laura Brod 5.34%

  • Sue Jeffers 5.34%

  • David Hann 3.88%

  • Steve Sviggum 3.88%

  • Jim Ramstad 3.40%

  • Geoff Michel 2.43%

  • Charlie Weaver 1.94%

  • Paul Kohls 1.46%

  • Carol Molnau 0.97%

  • David Senjem 0.49%

  • When does the "Draft Jeff Johnson" movement get started?

    Leaves of Three

    One thing about politics that really annoys me is when people try to talk down the economy or exaggerate its negatives in pursuit of their own political agendas. Democrats were notorious for doing this during the Bush years and there are certainly some Republicans who appear to be engaging in the same tawdry tactics today. When it comes to the success or failure of the economy, I'm strictly non-partisan. I always want the US economy to be strong and growing. It's good for the country, good for the world for that matter, and, strictly from a personal point of view, good for me and my family.

    So I would very much like to embrace the emerging optimistic view that the economy has turned the corner and that recovery is already underway. But there a number of troubling signs that the economy's "green shoots" that people are talking about will not sprout and bloom, but soon wither. Three signs to be exact.

    1. The recent uptick in the price of commodities is viewed as a sign that the global market has confidence in a recovery. But at this point, it's not clear if rising commodity prices are a mini-boom driven by rational expectations of growth or a mini-bubble driven by people's need to put their money somewhere (WSJ-sub req):

    China is one: Even if its nascent economic recovery falters, it will likely keep gobbling commodities. China has more than doubled its gold holdings since 2003 and is accumulating bigger inventories of crude, copper and other materials -- both for future use and to protect against the potential decline in value of its massive dollar holdings, says Bart Melek, commodity strategist at BMO Capital Markets.

    Global liquidity is another. The ratio of global money supply to gross domestic product has never been higher, according to Morgan Stanley economists Joachim Fels and Manoj Pradhan -- supporting what they call a "global liquidity cycle" that puts cash into the hands of investors who bid up assets. Similar cycles supported the tech-stock and housing bubbles in the past decade, the economists say.

    Or the most recent commodity bubbles of the last few years in oil and metals. Maybe the rising commodity prices are based on demands from China and other developing countries. But I suspect that they're more a result of the need to invest that excess global liquidity. At some point, if the economic fundamentals aren't there to support the higher commodity prices, that bubble is going to burst or at least deflate.

    2. Although the latest unemployment numbers were greeted by some as positive news since the US lost fewer jobs than in previous periods, it's hard to see much light at the end of the jobs tunnel right now. While it is true that an upturn in employment lags during a recovery, jobs are a factor that can either help ignite or extinguish said recovery. Based on the forecasts through 2010, it appears more likely that we will see the latter effect. Unemployment at 10% to Depress Consumer Spending:

    Surging unemployment in the U.S. will delay a recovery in consumer spending and mute the rebound when it does materialize, according to a Bloomberg News survey.

    The jobless rate will climb to 10 percent by the end of 2009, 1.6 percentage points higher than projected at the start of the year, according to the median forecast of 62 economists surveyed from June 1 to June 8. Household purchases will drop this year more than previously estimated.

    And we all know how important consumer spending is to the American economy.

    3. Which bring us to the third and probably most worrisome sign that economic recovery may be a long ways off. Not only is consumer spending being dampened by the bleak unemployment numbers, but even those consumers who do want to spend may no longer be able to tap into the usual resources to do so. On Borrowed Time: Consumer-Led Recovery (WSJ-sub req):

    Despite recent frugality, consumers have barely dented their debt load. The Federal Reserve will offer a fresh peek at that mountain on Thursday, when it releases its "flow of funds" data for the first quarter.

    By the end of 2008, households were on the hook for $13.8 trillion in debt -- nearly matching the $14.3 trillion output of the entire U.S. economy, not adjusted for inflation, that year.

    Households are shedding debt; they're just not doing it very quickly. They owed roughly 130% of disposable income at the end of 2008, down only slightly from a record 133% in the first quarter of 2008.

    An old saw about U.S. consumers is never to underestimate their willingness to spend beyond their means. The debt-to-income ratio first crossed 100% during the 2001 recession, when debt-fueled consumer spending helped spark a recovery. It kept rising post-recession as super-low interest rates encouraged still more borrowing. And it rose even after the Fed raised rates, as consumers piled into mortgages to chase rising home prices.

    Money is easy again, but unemployment is far higher and wage growth slower than at any time during the 2001 recession.

    Households have also now suffered the bursting of two bubbles -- housing and stocks -- carving $12.9 trillion from their net worth since the second quarter of 2007. The recent market rally should bolster household balance sheets, the flow of funds data might show. But real estate is still the biggest household asset, at 36% of net worth, and prices haven't stopped falling.

    Finally, credit is still far tighter than at any point during the 2001 recession, according to a Citigroup index of financial conditions.

    It's difficult to imagine this situation improving any time soon. Housing prices may stabilize and people will continue to save more and borrow less, which theoretically would free up more debt for them to incur in order to spend. But given the lay of the economic land today and in the foreseeable future, a surge in consumer spending doesn't seem likely to occur in the coming months.

    Consider me skeptical that the economy has reached a turning point and is on the road to recovery. This is one time where I would very much like to have my skepticism proven to be unfounded.

    Freedom Finds A Way Through

    David Harsanyi weighs in on China's requirement that PC makers include software that allows the government to block "harmful" websites. His view is that even with such software installed, more personal computers in China will eventually lead to more personal freedom:

    But if we believe that the U.S. has no business imposing its values on other nations, why would we expect corporations to spread the good word?

    Some critics have presented the issue as a straightforward choice between corporate "profits" and enlightened "principle" (profit, predictably, being the immoral choice). Which is technically true. But what if profit is the constructive way to advance our principles?

    The 40 million personal computers sold in China last year--many of them in the hands of once-isolated people--will do more to liberalize that nation than any government sanction or well-intentioned protest we could concoct. When, after all, has any policy of isolation or trade restriction helped spread democracy or undermine tyranny?

    It won't surprise onlookers that around the 20th anniversary of the military crackdown in Tiananmen Square, Internet users across China had problems accessing popular networking sites like Twitter, MySpace, Hotmail and Yahoo, among many others.

    These sites allow people to interact in areas all across China, exchange ideas and grievances, plan political opposition or simply discuss frowned-upon topics. Across China, users openly complained and speculated about the reasons for the shutdown, which in itself is a sign of growing independence.

    To combat this kind of Internet liberty, China's government utilizes over 30,000 censors. It deploys unknown thousands of true believers who troll websites, affixing positive and fawning comments about the Communist Party on message boards and Internet discussions.

    The more computers China has, the more censors it will need. The more computers the Chinese use, the more difficult it will be to control the flow of information.

    A government that tries to control the flow of information in today's world may succeed in the short run. But over time such control will prove impossible to maintain. Agreeing to the Chinese government's demands to include such censoring software may seem to be helping them build their information wall. But the longer the wall gets, the more difficult it is to prevent it from being breached.

    Tuesday, June 09, 2009

    Keep 'Em Separated

    At First Thoughts--A First Things Blog, Sean Curnyn has a post on the Ryan Report of child abuse at industrial and reform schools in Ireland. It includes a reminder that the end result of countries not embracing a separation of church and state is often detrimental to the church:

    The report's focus was on abuse in reform schools, where the relative isolation and dramatic absence of accountability allowed the most heinous crimes to flourish, but there's not much doubt that a culture of harsh authoritianism and excessive corporal punishment pervaded the ordinary Irish school system for decades, administered as it was largely by the religious orders in question. Aside from the chief and most obvious tragedy--the suffering of the abused--there is also surely the tragedy of how this has played into the alienation of so many Irish people from their Christian heritage. The forces of secularization, consumerism, new age-ism and the like have surely found fertile ground in a populace where memories and anecdotes of brutality via "the Brothers" are so commonplace. The face of the Church—indeed of any church—should never be transformed from one of Christian charity to one of abusive authoritianism. Ironically, it is how close the Catholic Church was to the political establishment in the Irish Republic--the very lofty position it held--that helped enable this kind of evil to run unchecked.

    Everybody Hurts

    Regular readers know that I believe there is a lot of value to be had in reading the Wall Street Journal. From the news of the day to the editorial page to the business coverage, the paper packs good bang for the buck. Throw in the book, theater, and movie reviews, food, drink, and personal technology columns, and even the fledgling sports page and you have a fairly well-rounded information package delivered to your door six days a week.

    But once in a while the upper-crust, East Coast origins of the paper come across in a manner that most Americans probably have a tough time relating too. For some reason I've noticed this most often in articles that deal with "lifestyle management" or personal finance. Case in point is this piece in yesterday's paper called Back to the (Thrifty) Future:

    Before the financial crisis struck, for instance, when we'd go out for dinner with friends, someone would always pick up the check. The unspoken notion was that we'd be going out again soon, and that next time someone else would pick up the tab. There was an informal rotation, sometimes with a bit of a socialist bent. The bankers and lawyers usually grabbed a few more checks over time, but nobody really freeloaded.

    Maybe I'm just hanging with the wrong mix of friends, but this isn't something that I've experienced much in my social circles. And the idea that the lawyers and bankers I know would be the ones more often than not picking up a check is almost laughable. They're usually the cheapest, stingiest ones of the bunch.

    Summer vacations also reflect the new frugality. In the past, spontaneity was the watchword. Meet-ups in Las Vegas, a trip to London or Paris to do some sightseeing or a dash out to the Hamptons for a weekend.

    "Do we have plans for the weekend yet Mitzy?"

    "Well Chase, I was thinking that perhaps we could make a dash out to the Hamptons."

    "Sounds splendid darling. I'll have Stevens prepare the motor car."

    But now that tough times are upon us, those days of carefree summer vacations are a thing of the past. The writer makes note of his own personal sacrifices:

    Looking back, it all seems just a bit foolish--the frivolous actions of a self-indulgent time. Now, it's about planning and watching pennies, or at least dollars. In February, my wife and I started mapping out what we wanted to do. Our goal was to do one thing fun and reasonably priced and one thing a bit more adventurous. So, we settled on a late-July bike ride across Iowa, and we're saving up to take a cruise in August. We also might squeeze a camping trip in there somewhere.

    Only three vacation outings this summer? The suffering is truly heart-wrenching. And yet some still claim that we're not in the midst of an economic depression?

    Our friends are taking a similar approach to the summer. One friend, who works at a large company and is doing just fine in the downturn, is taking his family to New Hampshire for a Fourth of July weekend with the in-laws. The rest of their summer vacation will be spent primarily at their modest lake cabin. He had thought of doing a "tear down" and building a new cabin, but for now he's happy with his smallish, vintage place. He'd rather not spend the money if he doesn't have to. Instead, he's saving up to pay for his kids' schooling.

    A dream deferred is a dream denied. Thing really are tough all over.

    Tax Your Feet

    Tim from Colorado chimes in on possible lifestyle taxes for lefties:

    1) Reusable Grocery Bags. Undoubtedly, reusable grocery bags are more than likely to be manufactured in sweat shops in Central America or somewhere in the Asian Pacific Rim, by child labor no less. The reusable bags should be taxed to provide advanced skill training for the child laborers so they can get more advanced skills and go to work for my favorite athletic shoe company making my favorite athletic shoes and clothing.

    2) Hybrid cars--As more, smaller, hybrid cars hit the road, shopping center management paints smaller parking spaces in their parking lots. This causes me to drive around shopping centers trying to find two spaces next to each other in which I can park my full-size crew cab pick-up. This extra driving increases my carbon foot-print. Taxes paid to me by hybrid owners would go towards planting trees to offset my carbon foot-print. I promise.

    3) Che Guevara T-shirts. Just because we can.

    While the third suggestion might seem extreme keep in mind that the the power to tax is the power to destroy.

    Monday, June 08, 2009

    Lifestyle Costs

    Berkley e-mails:

    So according to this article the Democrats are considering taxing my beer and my Coke, and calling it a "lifestyle tax." Is this really the direction they want to go? Taxing people's lifestyle choices? If they want to open that Pandora's box, I can think of plenty of lifestyle choices enjoyed by liberals that should be open to taxes:

    Abortions -- you engaged in risky behavior that led to 'medical condition' (aka pregnancy), so we gotta tax you.

    Organic food -- it runs a higher risk of e-coli, so we gotta tax you

    Condom tax -- condoms aren't foolproof, you're risking getting a STD so we gotta tax you.

    I'm sure there are others. Why should the mainstream public have their lifestyles criticized and taxed, and not the liberals?

    Good question. What other lefty lifestyle choices should be taxed (or taxed more heavily)?

    While riding a bike is healthy, it's also dangerous. Especially in an urban environment. Bike tax.

    Loud music causes hearing loss and stage diving can cause serious injury. Club tax.

    Body piercing and tattoos carry increased risks of infection. Tax 'em both.

    Bumper stickers are a distraction in traffic and may cause accidents. Bumper sticker tax.

    Plants remove CO2 from the atmosphere by photosynthesis. Vegetarians eat plants thereby contributing to global warming. (This is not an original idea--can't recall where I got it from.) Tax all vegetarian meals.

    Other ideas?